Up close with James Devonshire, the head chef of the Bluebell, Henley in Arden on why he hates culinary gimmicks – and how he arrived in the kitchen via the ski slopes of the French Alps
Tell us about your cooking
I’m a simple man who wants to cook the kind of food I love and eat. It’s all about great flavours, using the very best seasonal produce available and not messing with it too much. Consistency is the key and I love the fact we also make all our own ice cream and breads on site. I’m not anti-technology but I’m really not into using gimmicks just for the sake of it – although I do admit to having a water bath!
Describe your perfect meal
I’d start with half-a-dozen fresh oysters with some shallot vinegar and half a bottle of fizz to wash them down. Then a cassoulet or slow cooked belly of Warwickshire pork with a glass of Châteauneuf du Pape. To finish, a light lemon tart.
How did you become a chef?
My mum was a professional cook and my dad is a real foodie too, so I guess there’s always been a passion in me. As a boy I always loved cookery programmes but I studied sports studies at college and worked a few seasons at ski resorts. One day while working in Courchevel in the French Alps I just decided that I really wanted to be a chef. I took my first kitchen job at the Malbec Restaurant, Stratford (sadly no longer there) working under head chef Simon Malin. He taught me about the seasons, sourcing the best ingredients and how to cook for the customer, not for the critics. I joined him again at the Bluebell and when he left it was a natural progression to take on the head chef role. I love it here – and winning the Good Food Guide Midlands Best Restaurant award last year was the icing on the cake!
What do you eat at home?
Working long hours means you often forget to eat properly so on my days off I cook lots of healthy comfort food with loads of fresh veg. My three-year-old son loves helping me make pasta, which is awesome.
Best chef in the world? Best in Brum?
Simon Hopkinson – not a populist choice, but a real influence in the 90s when Marco PW was at his height. Simon’s all about the ingredients and I still reference many of his books. As for Birmingham, I recently had a great meal at Purnell’s.
Is the customer always right?
Food is very subjective… you can’t please all of the people all of the time!
What’s the best thing about being a chef?
Channelling your passions, emotions and creations onto a plate and it coming back empty.
And the worst thing?
Not seeing my family enough and not getting to snowboard as much as I’d like.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you be?
I’m a qualified snowboard instructor so being able to manage that with the cooking would be living the dream!
What do you recommend from today’s menu?
You won’t go wrong with the ham hock and black pudding croquette, pea purée, and parsley sauce.
JAMES’ RECIPE FOR HERITAGE TOMATOES, GOAT’S CHEESE, MARJORAM
For the whipped goat’s cheese:
- 100g goat’s cheese
- 75g double cream
- 150g whipped double cream
- Pinch of salt
For the tomato consomme jelly:
- 600g whole tomatoes
- 30g celery
- 35g fennel
- 50g cucumber
- ½ clove garlic
- 5 basil leaves
- 1 sprig tarragon
- Gelatine leaves
- Salt to taste
- You will also need 6-8 sprigs of majoram
To make the whipped cheese: Melt the cheese and cream together on a low heat. Pass through a sieve and chill in a bowl. Fold in the whipped cream in thirds. Add salt to taste.
To make the tomato jelly: Whizz all ingredients in a blender until smooth, hang in a muslin cloth over a bowl overnight, check the seasoning and add a leaf of gelatine for every 150ml of liquid. Then heat a quarter of the liquid in a pan, add the gelatine leaves when dissolved add the hot liquid back to the rest and set in a mould lined with cling film. When it is set cut into squares or chunks as you wish.
Assembling the dish: Take 9-12 Heritage tomatoes and slice them in different ways. Arrange on individual plates or on one large plate for the table. Place squares of consomme jelly randomly around tomatoes, quenelle the goat’s cheese (one for each person) and place around the dish. Drizzle oil generously over the tomatoes, scatter the marjoram over the dish with a generous sprinkle of sea salt. We serve it with a tapenade croute.